Selecting works of fiction for the category of ‘most influential’ is an impossible task and bound to be highly personal. The works listed below are not necessarily the most technically ‘fine’ examples of literary work, but they are fictions whose influence has spun strongly through time. The numerous cultures on this planet differ in many ways but they have more in common with each other than differences as their literature is about people, so it is better to think of a human culture rather than a collection of different cultures. These books have one important thing in common: they all display the doings and endeavours of human beings acting their lives out in their particular times and places.

So here – in no particular order – is NoSweatShakespeare’s pick of the 20 most influential works of fiction of all time:

1. The First Folio by William Shakespeare

The First Folio is the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays, published as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies in 1623. It was prepared by Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, and contains 36 plays. The influence of the plays in the First Folio, not only on the English-speaking world but across all cultures, is immense. Every generation continues to be in Shakespeare’s debt. His plots have inspired ceaseless adaptations and spin-offs, and continue to do so. Read more about The First Folio >>

2. The Bible, various authors

The Bible is a collection of writings ranging over a thousand years in time. It’s composed of two main books – The Old Testament and the New Testament. The claims for The Old Testament are that it is a history of the Jews while The New Testament deals mainly with the life and death of a man-god, Jesus of Nazareth, and the spread of Christianity by several evangelists, notably St Paul. Read more about The Bible >>

3. The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey is the second of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to a poet known as Homer. It is the name ascribed by the ancient Greeks to the author of the two epic poems, which are the central works of ancient Greek literature. The first, the Iliad, is set during the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek city states. The Odyssey focuses on the journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy. Read more about The Odyssey >>

4. Epic of Gilgamesh, author unknown

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian  epic poem dating from about 2100 BCE. It is thought to be the world’s earliest great work of literature: it is certainly the oldest surviving such work. Scholars have worked out that it is derived from five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. The poems evolved into the epic poem. Only a few tablets of it have survived but scholars have reconstructed most of the writing of the twelve tablets. Read more about The Epic of Gilgamesh >>

5. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

This is a Spanish novel published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615. Its full title is The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha. The author, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is an almost exact contemporary of William Shakespeare. It is one of the earliest European novels and one of the most influential. It is widely considered to be the best novel ever written. Read more about Don Quixote >>

6. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China’s greatest classical novels, written around the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. There is a whole scholarly field (Redology) devoted to the study of the novel. It is a most complex work, a semi-autobiographical novel, focusing on the saga of the author’s own family, throwing light on the Qing Dynasty. Read more about The Dream Of The Red Chamber >>

7. Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex  (Greek title: Oedipus Tyrannus), a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, was first performed in about 430 BCE. Before the events of the play Oedipus has become king of Thebes after unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius, the king, and marry his mother. He has solved the riddle of the Sphinx, which has set him on the path to restoring the land which has been devastated as a result of a plague. He has become king and taken his mother, Jocasta, as his queen. He does not know that she is his mother. Read more about Oedipus the King >>

8. Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradise Lost is a blank verse, epic poem by John Milton, first published in 1667.  A second version, consisting of twelve books, followed in 1674. Paradise Lost is based on the biblical story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by the fallen angel, Satan, and their expulsion from the Garden. There are two narrative thrusts in the poem: one following Adam and Eve and the other following Satan, or Lucifer. Read more about Paradise Lost >>

9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , a fantasy novel by the Oxford mathematics don, Charles Dodgson under the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, was published in 1865. It is the highly imaginative tale of a girl who falls through a rabbit hole into a dream world populated by an array of fantastic characters. Characterised as a children’s story, which was the author’s original intention, it has become a classic enjoyed, including at the present time, by adults as well as children. Read more about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland >>

10. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories written between 1387–1400, mainly in verse, in English. The tales are presented as contributions to a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Chaucer’s plan was to write two stories for each of the pilgrims, telling their tales both on the way there and on the return journey.  There are some thirty pilgrims introduced but not all of them tell a tale and the work is unfinished: there is only one story from each of the storytellers. Read more about The Canterbury Tales >>

11. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy is the pre-eminent Italian literary work. It is a long narrative poem written between 1308 and 1320, an imaginative vision of the afterlife, in which the protagonist, Dante, visits hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradiso). The poem is divided into those three parts. Although it depicts the adventures during a journey through these three lands, on a deeper level, it represents allegorically, the soul’s journey towards God, from the darkest depths of Hell to the light and joys of Heaven. The poem is based on Christian theology and philosophy. Read more about The Divine Comedy >>

12. Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory

The legendary King Arthur is a figure who looms large in English and French culture. Thomas Malory collected stories, both French and English, about him and put them into one book, translating the French material himself. He also added original stories of his own. It is from Malory’s text that the innumerable books and films that deal with the Knights of the Round Table, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and his son, Galahad and the wizard, Merlin, get their material. Every English child grows up with strong images of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table and are familiar with the characters, and Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur. The mediaeval view that we have of the age of courtliness and the adventures of the knights and their king comes mainly from Malory. Read more about Le Morte d’Arthur >>

13. Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen

We have all been influenced by Andersen’s stories. Who does not know the story of the ugly duckling or the tale of the princess and the pea? And many many more. Those stories exist deep in the heart of our collective consciousness. And, what is more, for profundity and ultimate truth, there is no short story ever written that can compete with ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Some say that it is the greatest short story ever written.  In a few pages Andersen  illuminates the themes of ambition, hypocrisy, vanity, cynicism, and innocence – all in the form of an amusing and seemingly simple children’s story. Read more about Anderson’s Fairy Tales >>

14.  Mahabharata by Vedas

The Mahābhārata is the major Sanskrit epic of Ancient India. It is an epic narrative about the Kuruksetra War and the Kaurava and the Pandava princes. It is further noted for its philosophical and devotional material, including a discussion of the four goals of life. One of the principal stories is the Bhagavadgita, the story of Damayanti  a princess of the Vidarbha Kingdom, who married king Nala of the Nishadha Kingdom. She also appears in other Hindu texts in numerous Indian languages. Read more about Mahabharata >>

15. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an American novel by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), first published in 1885. It is notable for its prose, written entirely in vernacular English with rich regional colouring, painting a vivid picture of the 19th century American South. It is often referred to as the ‘Great American Novel’ because of the theme that addresses the big concern of America and also because it employs the language of the ordinary inhabitants of the South. It is narrated in the first person by a teenage boy, Huck, who runs away from an abusive father and embarks on a great adventure on a raft on the Mississippi River, during which he encounters a host of characters. The several episodes in the adventure are presented in a picaresque structure as Huck moves on down the river, meeting new people as he goes. Read more about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn >>

16. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is an English novel by George Orwell, published in 1949. It is a dystopian novel set forty-five years later in Airstrip One, a country formerly known as Great Britain in what has become a province of a superstate, Oceana. Oceana is in a perpetual state of war. Its government subjects citizens to rigorous surveillance and state manipulation, conducted by the Inner Party, comprising a privileged elite. Individualism is ruthlessly suppressed and independent thinking is a crime policed by the Thought Police. Society is overseen by the Party leader, Big Brother, a cult figure who may or may not exist, and citizens are forced to worship him in regular praise sessions. Read more about Nineteen Eighty-Four >>

17. Metamorphoses by Ovid

The Metamorphoses is a narrative poem by the Roman poet, Ovid. ‘Metamorphoses’ can be translated as meaning ‘books of transformations.’ The poem traces the history of the world from the creation to Julius Caesar. It is written in the form of stories of transformations of people and objects from one state to another – for example, the final one which is the transformation of the man, Julius Caesar, to a deity. Ovid drew on the rich body of metamorphosis poetry in which the transformation myths appear. Ovid used the earlier myths as models, from which he diverged and forged his own creative treatment of them in his 250 stories. The transformations range from human to inanimate object, from animal and fungus to human; transformations of gender and of colour. Read more about Metamorphoses >>

18. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is essential reading for everyone who lives in an organised, structured society, which is almost all of us. It is an exploration of how such societies are formed by individuals and how they are conducted, how they can succeed and how they may become dysfunctional. It’s deeply philosophical but written as an exciting adventure story, something that can even be enjoyed by children. We can read the theories of the same process in the works of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau but that would require enormous  effort and concentration, whereas Lord of the Flies is a very easy read, presented as an exciting and gripping children’s adventure story, full of action and tension. It’s a wonderful novel whose influence lies in the clarity of its warnings of the dangers of ignoring its lessons. Read more about Lord of the Flies >>

19. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula is an 1897 novel by Irish author Bram Stoker. It is the story of a vampire, Count Dracula’s, move from his native Transylvania to England in the search for victims of his undead curse, and the actions of a group of men and women led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing to combat him. After a very exciting and tense campaign, filled with scenes of bloodcurdling horror, they succeed in destroying the menace. Read more about Dracula >>

20. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby, a novel by the American writer, F Scott Fitzgerald, is the story of Jay Gatsby, a young millionaire’s, obsession for a beautiful married woman, Daisy Buchanan. It is set on Long Island in the summer of 1922. Its themes are essentially American – the idealism, decadence, social change in the face of resistance to that, and the concept of the American Dream. It paints a vivid picture of its time, which has been called the Jazz Age. Although its initial reception was lukewarm it has since become regarded by many as ‘the great American novel’ in competition with the likes of Moby Dick by Herman Melville and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain for that title. Read more about The Great Gatsby >>

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